Fuwad Khan’s Dharam Sankat Mein starts brightly, hits some beautiful high notes towards the middle, and then proceeds to let itself down. At half-time, I was half-expecting this to be the next Tere Bin Laden, a film that’s satirical and perceptive, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. At an hour and 45 minutes, I revised my expectations down to Vicky Donor levels: great premise, strange ending. By the time the film crossed the 2-hour mark, I would have settled for anything better than the aman ki asha climax of PK.
PK and Dharam Sankat Mein have a lot more in common than an inability to close well. Both are satires about religion as practised in modern India, but from differing perspectives. The central conceit of PK was that only an alien could show us how silly and corrupt organized religion really is. Aamir Khan’s alien was the ultimate outsider, whereas Paresh Rawal’s Dharam Pal is a reluctant insider. The 50-year-old head of a catering business in Ahmedabad, Dharam is a Brahmin who enjoys the occasional drink, wears a sacred thread but pokes fun at his son for becoming overly devout in order to impress his potential father-in-law. It’s a canny portrait of a certain type of middle-class Indian: religious on the surface, but actually just trying not to make waves. What makes Dharam representative of a certain kind of Indian thinking is that he—while basically uninterested in religion—is also casually communal, evident in his conversations with his wife and, more explicitly, in an argument with his neighbour, the lawyer Nawab Mehmood Shah (Annu Kapoor), when he suggests that the man move into a Muslim neighbourhood if he doesn’t like the one he’s currently in. The film flips this instinctive but unthinking attitude on its head when Dharam finds out, some 20 minutes in, that he was adopted as a boy, and that his biological father is Muslim. He also discovers that his father is alive and living in a home for the aged. When Dharam goes to meet him, the imam who runs the establishment (the menacing, soft-spoken Murali Sharma) tells him he must become more visibly Muslim before he meets the old man. He turns to Shah, who agrees to coach him. And thus the movie’s brightest stretch begins.
The paraphernalia of religions—the rituals and tics that mark one out as a believer, and separate from believers of another feather—was the object of affectionate ribbing in PK as well, but Dharam Sankat Mein works better because the emotional stakes are higher. This is all credit to Kapoor and Rawal, who take an essentially slapstick scenario and add shades of deep hurt and confusion to it. Kapoor has a whale of a time with his character’s grandiose way of expressing himself: He speaks like a lawyer in an Urdu courtroom drama. But he also conveys, without explicitly saying so, the toll it must take if you’re the only Muslim in a Hindu neighbourhood in post-2002 Ahmedabad. Rawal does something almost as interesting with a less virtuous character. Dharam gets over his religious mental blocks, but he’s no more interested in being a good Muslim than he was in being a devout Hindu. To him, adopting “Muslim mannerisms” is simply like putting on a disguise, a way to reach his father before he dies (much is made of the significance of holy caps in the film). Dharam Sankat Mein would have been a lot easier to digest if the ultimate message had been in sync with Dharam’s character: the idea that many Indians today use religion as a means to an end, a way to fit in. But the film ends up siding with dharam, not Dharam’s sankat (which is to meet his dying father), and sacrifices its emotional raison d’être. By the end, it disintegrates into bland liberal pieties, unconvincing depictions of communal tension, and the unrewarding slapstick of the subplot involving Dharam’s son and the godman Neelanand Baba (Naseeruddin Shah, parodying MSG, perhaps a touch too much). It’s a pity, because when Rawal and Kapoor are on song, you want it to go on forever. This review appeared in Mint.